FDA urged to halt sale of "functional foods" containing illegal ingredients

array of foods including tomato, berries, nuts, and shrimp

WASHINGTON - The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) today urged the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to halt the sale of dozens of  “functional foods” that contain ingredients not considered by the agency to be safe. In 158 pages of written complaints concerning more than 75 products, CSPI also urged the FDA to order manufacturers to stop making false and misleading claims about their products.

     “Food companies are spiking fruit drinks, breakfast cereals, and snack foods with illegal ingredients and then misleading consumers about their health benefits,” stated Bruce Silverglade, CSPI director of legal affairs. “It’s shameful that respected companies are selling modern-day snake oil.”

     On display at a press conference in Washington, D.C., were dozens of products targeted in CSPI’s complaints to the FDA. Those included:

  • Snapple’s “Moon” Tea Drink containing kava kava. It claims to “enlighten your senses.” Kava kava has been a factor in several arrests for driving while intoxicated (DWI). Kava kava is also used in Apple & Eve’s Tribal Tonics’ “Relaxation Cocktail” and Hansen’s “d•stress” sparkling drink.
  • Ben & Jerry’s “Tropic of Mango Smoothie” containing echinacea. Echinacea can cause allergic reactions, including asthma attacks, and may counteract the effects of drugs that suppress the immune system.
  • Arizona’s “Rx Memory Elixer” containing ginkgo biloba. This product is labeled as “mind-enhancing.” Ginkgo biloba acts as a blood thinner. Taking ginkgo biloba with anticoagulant drugs may increase the risk of excessive bleeding or stroke.
  • Procter & Gamble’s “spire Energy with VitaLift Green Tea and Juice Beverage” containing guarana extract. The label promises to provide “smooth, steady, sustained energy.” The FDA has stated that guarana is not considered to be a safe ingredient for use in food.

     “Consumers are often deceived by false claims,” said Attorney General of Connecticut Richard Blumenthal at the press conference. “They are not told that many claims are not supported by valid scientific evidence. We need more vigorous FDA enforcement of current laws on label claims. In addition, I’m recommending that state attorneys general make functional foods a top consumer-protection initiative,” he said.

     “Herbs are medicines that don’t belong in soft drinks, breakfast cereals, and snack chips,” said Varro Tyler, Ph.D., Sc.D., Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Purdue University and an internationally recognized expert on herbal medicine. “Companies that add herbs to foods to exploit consumer interest in alternative medicine are acting irresponsibly,” he said at the press conference.

     The U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) issued a report last week that strongly criticized the FDA’s regulation of functional foods. The GAO stated: “FDA’s efforts and federal laws provide limited assurances of the safety of functional foods . . .” The report concluded that while the extent to which unsafe functional foods reach consumers is unknown, the FDA should protect the public by halting misleading claims and requiring warning labels where appropriate. The GAO report also concluded that Congress should require companies to notify the FDA before using new “functional” ingredients.

     “The FDA knows that the substances added to these food products are poorly tested at best or potentially harmful at worst and that the claims are not scientifically proven,” said Ilene Ringel Heller, a CSPI staff attorney. “By allowing deceptively labeled nostrums to remain on the market, the FDA has failed to protect consumers.”

     A complete list of products that CSPI has asked the FDA to prohibit can be found atwww.cspinet.org/reports/funcfoodcomplaint.htm.